In my last post, I said “As I read my bible, apostolic authority ended when the full canon of scripture was complete”. My friend Adam called me out on that – saying that he would like to see where I read that. (Adam, these are my thoughts, more or less informed by my own bible study, however flawed, and my observations of “church”)
I am neither a theologian, nor a studied church historian. I am just a regular Christian guy trying to parse this world through the lens afforded by the Bible. With that disclaimer, here are my thoughts:
1) Apostolic Succession – Some churches claim that their leaders have some continuous apostolic succession going all the way back to Peter and the twelve apostles. This is true of the Roman Catholic Church, as well as most of the orthodox churches, and some divisions of the Lutheran Church and other “reformed” denominations have this as a tenet of their organizational structure. The idea that the ordination of elders or bishops and priests and pastors and higher officers in the church’s governance structure should, or must, or does follow a continuous lineage is a way to ensure the authority of those vested in power in the church.
2) Called or Sent – The meaning of the word apostle is “one sent away”, which was a common Greek term for a messenger or ambassador. We understand it as one sent by God (in Jesus Christ). The thing is, a messenger or ambassador is not sent on his own authority, but on the authority of the sender… According to Luke 6:13 and Matthew 10 – Jesus sent the twelve out as apostles, giving them special authority. In Luke 10 Jesus also sent out seventy two others on a different but similar mission, but they are not referred to as apostles.
3) Saul to Paul – After the resurrection, Jesus himself intervened in the conversion of Saul (the persecutor of the church) into Paul (the apostle to the gentiles). there was not a real formal ordination – other than Peter, recognizing God’s hand in Paul’s conversion. In Acts 14, Barnabas also is referred to as an apostle. Luke only calls Paul an apostle twice, in the book of Acts.
Drivers of Apostolic Leadership
In the early days of the church, the Gospel was an oral tradition, so apostolic authority was in fact eye witness accounts. Jesus himself had invested in these men and they were the keepers of the truth of the gospel message. Likewise, the signs and miracles that they performed were a testimonial to this investment, and to their authority. Clearly, the power that was manifest through the Holy Spirit in the early church was edifying to believers, reassuring them that they were invested in the truth.
Apostle – a Greek word that can be translated messenger or ambassador. The original authority for church leadership rested on the apostles. Yet as the church grew and became more distributed, the apostles could only directly lead a few groups. If the apostles were more of a central governing group, they were more of a consultancy, than a legislature or executive body. They traveled between locations, preaching, encouraging, correcting and investing in local churches often sending the messages that we now know as epistles. As far as I can tell, in the new testament, apostles were either those sent as missionaries like Paul and Barnabas, or those whom Jesus himself, designated as his special emissaries.
Deacon – A Greek word translated as servant. The ministry of the early church in Jerusalem was divided between spiritual and physical ministry – the apostles being responsible for the former, and the deacons responsible for the latter. In latter chapters in Acts, elders also are identified as participating in spiritual decisions.
Presbyter – a Greek word often translated elder. But in the church, the office of bishop is also derived from this word. In acts 11, the leaders of the church in Judea were referred to as elders. In Acts 15, apostles and elders are together in the Jerusalem church.
Pragmatic Need to Preserve the Truth
I read how the elders and apostles laid hands on missionaries and local church leaders as a means of granting them authority – certifying them if you will as being able to lead in some capacity. I see neither an instruction to carry on this tradition, nor the structure or an “pecking” order among those who have been “ordained”. Other than the original 12 apostles and Peter as the chief of those, there was no other “structure” elaborated in the early church.
I do not read that the church was instructed to carry on any such structure after the death of the original 12 apostles. I do read about qualifications for the two official church offices Elder or Bishop and Deacon or servant.
Based on some of the epistles of Paul and John it seems that even in the early church, disputes over doctrine and errant teachers or preachers were not uncommon. I must infer that the need to identify the “true” elders and teachers became important, as the church grew and diversified. I can only infer that some human structure became necessary to ensure that this need was met. Especially before the scriptures (the Bible) were complete, the continuation of a human certification of teachers and leaders by already certified teachers and leaders was essential to ensuring that the truth was preserved in oral form.
Traditions of Man
Once the full canon of scripture was approved, the preservation of the truth was no longer the ultimate driver of the need for human structure. The scripture was essential and sufficient to preserve the truth of the Gospel message and the doctrine of the church. The Roman empire through Emperor Constantine had helped the church grow and spread, and subsequently had also somewhat co-opted the church as an instrument of the state.
The governance structure became highly institutionalized, and doctrines favoring the institutional leaders statements as the interpretation God’s will were introduced. The scripture as essential, and sufficient was ultimately subverted by the doctrines of the infallibility of the leadership structure. Creating structures in which there were no practical means of impeaching leaders who had fallen into sin create a power culture within the church that took hold for centuries. In fact, it required the printing press, making copies of the scripture readily available for the common man to read for themselves to power a reformation. I am not saying that the church was ineffective or completely corrupt during this time, nor am I saying that God did not or can not work through flawed and corrupt humans, this He can and does continually.
The Magic of the Church
The Church is an amazing institution, being a joint institution of man and of God. It is the earthly body that Jesus Christ inhabits to continue to execute his mission of redemption and salvation unto all men. Since the church is an institution of man, who is fallen, only Christ who is the true head of the church is infallible. All men are tempted by sin and stumble at times. In the past century, we have observed many church leaders across all denominations succumb to temptation and fall into sin.
Did God really design His Church to be so reliant on man? I don’t believe that He did. First of all, Jesus promised the Holy Spirit, who was so much in evidence during the early days of the church. And he gave us His Word. The Logos. The scripture. I believe that the Church is supported by this “tripod”: The elders, the scripture, and the Spirit. I think that the church without human leadership is at best an impracticality. The church needs men and women who dedicate their lives, either as vocational or volunteer leaders and servants to help the rest of us move forward. I also think that the church needs the scripture, to keep itself pure, to weed out deception and maintain sound doctrine. The scripture is an unchanging standard, less affected by the society that it invades that any human can be. That is, in order to be effective, all believers need to own the scripture as their book. All believers need to develop the ability to learn from the scriptures independently, so that they, themselves can become a bulwark against false teaching. Finally, I believe that the Church needs the Holy Spirit. The direct touch of God. The spirit provides direct insight into God’s will. The spirit helps each believer understand how to apply the truth of scripture to their lives. The Spirit never contradicts the scripture, and the elders when living through the Spirit, never contradict the scripture. This is the way the Church was designed, and it is indeed miraculous and brilliant.
How we sometimes get it wrong…
In my experience, the Church has got it wrong when the start to favor one leg of the tripod. They grow and develop that leg, until it is so long that the tripod again becomes unstable and topples over toward the other two. Think about it – The Leader oriented churches emphasize the human leaders, almost obviating or inhibiting their laity from going deep into either the scripture or the spirit or even to think for themselves. The Bible oriented churches, that de-emphasize the work of the Holy Spirit, almost to the point of irrelevancy, and focus on congregationalist polity, hamstringing leadership from ever helping get the congregation out of any bad habits they are in. The Spirit oriented churches, who focus on the manifestations of the Holy Spirit, sometimes as a litmus test of one’s salvation or qualification to serve in leadership.
All churches make up traditions. All churches have methods and practices that were not clearly prescribed in the Bible. I think our error often comes when we start to value those traditions and practices over the simple, less prescriptive principles laid down in scripture. I also think that when we allow our people (each other) to become so attached to or invested in our traditions and practices that worship becomes impossible or unthinkable in their absence, we have done the Body of Christ a disservice. When our traditions serve to draw us away from deeper engagement with the scripture, with the Holy Spirit and we all as believers are allowed or encouraged to rely on leaders, we have done the Body of Christ a disservice. When we focus on the Scripture, and value teaching and sound doctrine above the mission that God has us all engaged in together, so that we cannot function without consensus of all the brethren, we have done the Body of Christ a disservice.
Because the Body of Christ is a means to an end. It is the apparatus through which Christ’s mission is to be accomplished. Its effectiveness is to be evaluated in this regard, and we are all accountable for our part in that mission. We are part of a temporary assembly, an expedition force. Its not as much about your friends, your boards, your facilities, your ministry programs, your music, your spiritual gifts, your tithes and offerings. It is about what those things do to glorify God by helping accomplish His mission on Earth.